With the 2020 presidential campaign in full swing, it is clear that a defining issue of the election will be economic inequality — and that puts America’s billionaires in the dock.
Proposals for a tax on extreme wealth have been put on the table by Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The wealth tax proposals are part of a general attack on economic inequality that all the Democratic candidates share, to some extent.
“The middle class is getting killed,” former Vice President Joe Biden said during the Dec. 19 Democratic debate. “The middle class is getting crushed. And the working class has no way up as a consequence of that. … The idea that we’re growing — we’re not growing. The wealthy, very wealthy, are growing. Ordinary people are not growing. They are not happy with where they are.”
Even the two certified billionaires in the Democratic race have expressed support for raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy. “I’ve been for a wealth tax for over a year,” Tom Steyer said during the debate. Michael R. Bloomberg, who did not appear at the debate, said at a campaign event in Phoenix three weeks ago that while a wealth tax of the variety proposed by Warren or Sanders “just doesn’t work,” he supports “taxing wealthy people like me.”
Sanders has proposed a graduated tax on net worth starting at 1% on wealth above $32 million for a married couple, rising in steps to 8% on wealth over $10 billion. The brackets are for married couples; for singles the thresholds would be halved.
Warren’s tax would begin at 2% a year on household net worth over $50 million, with an additional 4% surcharge on wealth over $1 billion.
Both proposals would raise trillions of dollars over a decade. Both are also designed explicitly to break up big family hoards. In the words of Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the UC Berkeley economists who are advisors to Warren on her wealth tax plan, “if the rich have to pay a percentage of their wealth in taxes each year, it makes it harder for them to maintain or grow their wealth.”
On the other side of the debate are commentators such as Erskine Bowles, a White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, and Henry Paulson, a treasury secretary under George W. Bush, who called the wealth tax proposals “wishful thinking” in a recent op-ed. They lumped the proposal together with proposals such as universal health care (“Medicare for All”) as policies that are “fundamentally misguided and would result in economically harmful outcomes that could put our economy on an unstable and precarious path.”
It’s proper to note that more than 200 of the world’s wealthiest individuals and families have signed on to the “Giving Pledge” created by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, a commitment to donate a majority of their wealth to philanthropy.
Whether such charity solves the social and economic problems of extreme wealth concentration is debatable, however, since the choice of how to distribute their wealth would remain in the hands of a small number of wealthy persons and underscores the issues raised by how their wealth became so concentrated in the first place.
Skepticism about the extreme wealth disparity isn’t a new phenomenon. Given the passage of time, and social and economic evolution, it’s difficult to pin down how the wealth inequality that has developed in this country compared to that of bygone eras and distant climes. But in 1929, according to historian William E. Leuchtenburg, 36,000 families — the top 0.1% of that era — received as much income as the bottom 12 million households, or 42%.
Critics of the wealth tax proposals argue it would be difficult, even impossible, to fairly value private assets outside established markets, such as fine art and private companies, and that it would prompt widespread asset concealment by billionaires intent on evasion.
It may be hard to divine today what form a wealth tax may take, but pressure to bring extremely large fortunes under control is unlikely to ebb.
Among the Democratic candidates, the only real disagreement on economic policy appears to be over how aggressively to go after concentrated and inherited wealth, not whether it’s worth reining in at all.
Some billionaires evidently perceive that there’s danger for their own wealth and the economy at large in today’s level of inequality.
“America has a moral, ethical and economic responsibility to tax our wealth more,” wrote 20 millionaires and billionaires, including George Soros, heiress Abigail Disney and venture investor and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, in an open letter in June. “Instituting a wealth tax,” they concluded, “is in the interest of our republic.”